Vickroy: Singer lifts spirits, raises money
By Donna Vickroy email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy December 14, 2012 1:42PM
Updated: January 17, 2013 6:13AM
They say song can lift the human spirit and make a person feel closer to God.
It also can fill the Salvation Army kettle.
Stephanie Porche stands in the stark, chilly vestibule of Sam’s Club in Tinley Park and belts out “Silver Bells.” The a cappella strains resonate throughout the giant discount warehouse store as well as into the parking lot.
It’s enough to make shoppers pause, some to make a contribution to her red kettle, some to return her “Merry Christmas” greeting and some to share a spiritual moment.
Wearing a red stocking cap, Porche belts out holiday carols and gospel songs five days a week. She’s assigned to Sam’s Club most days and the Jewel-Osco grocery store in Orland Park the others.
She is the area’s No. 1 collector, said Lt. Bersabe Vera, who heads the Salvation Army’s Blue Island office. Last year Porche took in more than $9,000.
“I sing Christmas to everybody,” Porche, 48, said. “And every year, I am the top ringer.”
She sings as much for herself as she does for the strangers passing by.
It’s not enough to simply ring a bell and expect people to give, she explained. So she customizes her pitch with rich, soulful songs and genuine, heartfelt felicitations.
On a recent sunny morning, she was just finishing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” when deliveryman Ernesto Corral made a request.
“Do you know ‘Nobody Like Jesus Loves Me?’ ” he asked.
She does not.
“How about ‘Amazing Grace?’ ” he wondered.
Indeed she does, but first she offers a short prayer, which he receives. They hold hands and, together, this volunteer from Blue Island and this truck driver from St. Charles pause amid the flurry of clanging carts to close their eyes and praise the Lord.
Then Porche launches into song.
“A-a-ma-zi-ing Grace, how sweet the sound.”
A woman pushing a cart through the exit smiles, saying, “I’m so glad you’re here. You bring joy to me.”
Such compliments and “God moments,” as Porche calls them, are hardly unusual. She gets them all the time.
She also gets cash. Lots of it.
The second Saturday of December, she brought in more than $500. It’s not unusual for her daily intake to be $700 or even $1,000.
One year, a generous donor left 10 $100 bills in her bucket.
Porche said the woman had been hovering, pacing back and forth before she finally said, “I feel bad about the way I live.”
“I figured she was either prejudiced, rich or simply hadn’t given,” Porche said.
Porche went on break, and when she returned, the woman was gone. The next day, she was told about the large donation. While she can’t be certain it was from the woman who was hovering, she believes it was. She prayed the woman found some peace.
Porche was living in North Chicago with her mom in 2005 when she noticed a sign advertising for bell ringers. She signed up and was dispatched to the Marshall Field’s store in Lake Forest.
After a while, just ringing the bell seemed a bit boring. The cold also was starting to get to her. So she decided to sing because singing is something she enjoys and something she does well. It would take her mind off her chilly feet and make a noise more joyful than a clanging bell.
She had no idea the reception she would receive. Before long, children were gathered around her bucket, watching in awe. Adults were lining up to make donations. When her supervisor, Capt. Jeff Carr, came to collect her bucket and saw the commotion, he decided to join her the next day. He brought his trumpet.
Porche since has moved to Blue Island. She is married and unemployed, having been laid off from her home care job.
Every holiday season, she volunteers five days a week, eight hours a day to raise funds for people who are down and out.
She knows what it’s like to be needy. She’s used the services of the Salvation Army.
“Let’s just say I had some problems with disobedience,” she said. “Sometimes you can make life hard on yourself.”
But she found her way and now wants to help others do the same.
Some people, she said, need to receive help. Some, she added, need to give it.
Porche’s grandmother, a music teacher in Illinois and Alabama, taught her how to sing when she was just a child. Her mother, Carol Humphrey, nursed the hobby along.
Porche grew up singing in the Christian Valley Missionary Baptist Church choir in North Chicago.
Today, she is a member of the Trinity All Nations nondenominational church in Chicago.
“The church has lifted me spiritually,” she said. “When you have a good spirit, I believe everything else will fall in place.”
She sings to remind shoppers, wrapped up in their to-do lists and their deadlines, of the real reason for the season.
They seem to appreciate that.
“Thank you,” an elderly man on a scooter said, nodding to her.
“Beautiful,” a woman pushing a small child in a cart said.
And over and over, people smile and say, “Merry Christmas.”
They don’t all stop at the kettle, but Porche says that’s OK because the ones who do will give double.
During lulls, she helps move carts and open car doors for the elderly, all the while sending forth melodious sounds.
“Joy to the world, the Lord is come ... ”
“I enjoy singing,” she said. “I’ve seen it change people’s minds and hearts. And it puts joy in my heart.”